Curbing over-population

Every couple of years or so, journalists and writers and documentary film makers get momentarily obsessed with the issue of over-population. David Katz, in an article for the Huffington Post, thinks we should be more concerned:

Why is it that some 500,000,000 eggs have been recalled in the U.S. due to salmonella contamination? Proximal causes have much to do with modern farming and food handling techniques, and something to do with FDA resource limitations. But what about the root cause?

And how about the drought in Russia, leading to massive crop failure? Inundation in Pakistan leading to massive displacement of the population? Flooding in China? And while we’re at it, accelerated melting of the polar ice, with ramifications we are still just guessing at?

As you may guess, the “root cause” Katz is getting at is overpopulation.

The root cause that connects these dots — and many others besides — is global population growth. There are too many of us.
[…]
I raise the issue because it’s ominously absent from almost all discussion of global warming and climate change, modern industrial agricultural practices, and the propagation and transmission of both infectious and chronic disease. This is odd, and worrisome. It suggests either obliviousness, fatalism or capitulation — and none of these is good!

I read Ishmael a couple years ago. The issue of over-population comes up, and Ishmael, the gorilla-philosopher, suggests a rather taboo explanation for this:

“[A]ny species in the wild will invariably expand to the extent that its food supply expands … In the natural community, whenever a population’s food supply increases, that population increases. As that population increases, its food supply decreases, and as its food supply decreases, that population decreases. This interaction between food populations and feeder populations is what keeps everything in balance.”

What he is essentially saying is that the way to curb over-population is to stop feeding impoverished and starving nations.

Understandably, this sparked plenty of dissent. As Ronald Bailey writes:

In the real, non-idealized world, the population of our human ancestors was kept “in balance” (i.e., low) by high mortality rates for infants and mothers. “For hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, and subsequently in agrarian societies, our predecessors had an average life expectancy of 25-30 years,” Australian epidemiologist Tony McMichael has pointed out. “Most of them died of infectious disease, and many died of malnutrition, starvation and physical trauma.” In other words, Ishmael’s “balance” is just a euphemism for starvation and disease.

They’re both right, of course. But is there a middle way to stopping the depletion of our natural resources without the deaths of millions of impoverished, starving people?

China’s well-known solution to curbing their own over-population is their one-child policy. The idea is self-explanatory: to control their huge population, married couples are permitted to have only one child. Certain exceptions are made, but in general, no couple is allowed more than one child.

It’s a good idea for many reasons. From Wikipedia’s article on the one-child policy:

It is reported that the focus of China on population control helps provide a better health service for women and a reduction in the risks of death and injury associated with pregnancy. At family planning offices, women receive free contraception and pre-natal classes. Help is provided for pregnant women to closely monitor their health. In various places in China, the government rolled out a ‘Care for Girls’ program, which aims at eliminating cultural discrimination against girls in rural and underdeveloped areas through subsidies and education.

Can you imagine free contraceptives and pre-natal classes in our Western societies? The results of these practices being implemented on a global scale would be incredibly beneficial. We would be a healthier, better educated society. The idea is made possible when more resources are available by limiting procreation.

The practice of the one-child policy can be oppressive, though, especially when it comes to sexism:

China, like many other Asian countries, has a long tradition of son preference.[29] The commonly accepted explanation for son preference is that sons in rural families may be thought to be more helpful in farm work. Both rural and urban populations have economic and traditional incentives, including widespread remnants of Confucianism, to prefer sons over daughters.

In order to ensure that families will have boys, female infants are routinely killed, and abortions performed for no other reason than because the fetus was female or possibly disabled. In order to enforce this:

Reported abuses in its enforcement include bribery, coercion, compulsory sterilization, forced abortion, and possibly infanticide, with most reports coming from rural areas.[38][39] A 2001 report exposed that a quota of 20,000 abortions and sterilizations was set for Huaiji County in Guangdong Province in one year due to reported disregard of the one-child policy. The effort included using portable ultrasound devices to identify abortion candidates in remote villages. Earlier reports also show that women as far along as 8.5 months pregnant were forced to abort by injection of saline solution.[40] There have also been reports of women, in their 9th month of pregnancy or already in labour, having their children killed whilst in the birth canal or immediately after birth.[41] Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute announced that the One child policy is “an ongoing genocide.”

There are eugenics-related concerns, as well, that, in practice, turn the policy into a very ableist one:

The one-child policy includes eugenic regulations. Both partners have to be rigorously tested before they marry. If one spouse has an “unsatisfactory” physical or mental condition, ranging from dyslexia to schizophrenia, they are banned from marrying. The Chinese government claimed that these regulations are intended to “improve the quality of the Chinese population.”

ReasonableGuy, a commenter on Katz’s article, offered his solution:

In high school biology in 1968-69, I understood about the problems of overpopulation and decided that I would father only two children. I have fathered only two children. A few years after my daughter was born I had a vasectomy. Many other educated men that I know did likewise.

How do we control population without letting large populations of humans starve to death, or enforcing laws that wind up aborting fetuses or killing infants because of their sex or perceived mental or physical capacity? It seems as though a reasonable solution can be had; but how to get everyone to agree on something? A lot of people ignorantly blame immigrant populations for their lack of family planning, but having an unsustainable number of children is certainly not limited to any one group of people, either; groups from all cultures and walks of life reject contraception of any kind deliberately. For examples in the Western, “civilized” world, just look at the Duggar’s, the “Octomom,” or my former neighbors, who are number 3 for seemingly no other reason than to prove that God wants them to have more babies.

I support the theory of limiting families’ number of children, but at what point do we call it what it is, which is a denial of reproductive freedom? And at what point, if any, should we consider that perhaps unlimited reproductive freedom may need to take a backseat to the over-arching concerns and continued existence of humanity?

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24 Responses to Curbing over-population

  1. A.Y. Siu says:

    You’ve noted numerous problems with China’s one-child policy, and this is something we as human societies face with just about every social issue: legislation can be only so effective against culture and social pressures.

    You would never have to enact a law for people to try to be cool in high school, because the social pressure is already there to be cool. You would never have to enact a law for people to have sex, because the social pressure is already there to have sex. And, as Prohibition has taught us, if the social pressure is extremely strong to do something that is against the law, all it means is that people will keep doing it but just in such a way as not to get caught.

    The only way (the simplest but also the most difficult) to change overpopulation is to change cultures themselves. In both Western and Eastern cultures, it’s “cool” to have kids. While I don’t believe it should be shameful to have kids, we should really make a point to admire folks who decide not to have kids. Instead, they are often cast chastised (even by strangers) and told they’re selfish (which makes absolutely no sense).

    • April says:

      The only way (the simplest but also the most difficult) to change overpopulation is to change cultures themselves. In both Western and Eastern cultures, it’s “cool” to have kids. While I don’t believe it should be shameful to have kids, we should really make a point to admire folks who decide not to have kids. Instead, they are often cast chastised (even by strangers) and told they’re selfish (which makes absolutely no sense).

      Agreed. A cultural change, combined with vastly larger amounts of education that is available to everyone,, would be the most ethical and responsible way to help prevent an unsustainable number of humans on the planet.

  2. Josh says:

    A lot of people ignorantly blame immigrant populations for their lack of family planning, but having an unsustainable number of children is certainly not limited to any one group of people.

    Regardless of statistical outliers, Hispanics have a much higher fertility rate than white or Asian Americans, for example, whose rate is slightly below replacement. Europeans’ fertility rates are far lower than Americans’, and Africans’ are far higher. We don’t have to blame anyone, but we need to see the issue clearly if we consider it a problem and want to solve it.

    And at what point, if any, should we consider that perhaps unlimited reproductive freedom may need to take a backseat to the over-arching concerns and continued existence of humanity?

    Europe managed to lower its fertility rate through economic development, access to contraceptives, and educating women. I can imagine a world in which it would be moral to accept restricted reproductive freedom in exchange for our continued existence, but it isn’t this one. It’s simply not an option in a western democracy. And there are other viable options, like the ones mentioned above, that have already been demonstrated to be effective.

  3. Havlová says:

    Any attempt to legislate the number of children a woman can bear is an abuse of her human rights. It ends up being a way to control women, not a way to benefit society.

    There is no over-population problem—that is a myth, long ago disproved. Instead, we have a politico-economic problem. Why do we have mass starvation and impoverishment as well as a small elite who are wealthy beyond imagination? Why do third world countries grow basic resources for export to rich countries, instead of growing food for themselves?

    The most consistent indicator for low fertility in a society is material affluence. The richer a society is, the fewer babies. So even if you happen to buy into the myth that poor, third-world women of color just have too many dark-skinned babies, it is clear that destroying wealth inequities and focusing on economic policies that generate wealth inside third-world countries is the best way forward.

    • April says:

      Any attempt to legislate the number of children a woman can bear is an abuse of her human rights. It ends up being a way to control women, not a way to benefit society.

      Well, we’re not necessarily talking about “legislating the number of children a woman can bear.” More than a woman’s womb goes into reproducing, as I’m sure you know. Like sperm, things like that. Given the examples of the terrible ways in which China has enforced their one-child policy, I thought it’d be clear that forcing women to abort fetuses would not be part of a future plan along those lines. And obviously, since men are half of what causes new children, they would have to be held accountable as well. Like a vasectomy after fathering however many children.

      That’s, of course, if something like that were to happen.

      So even if you happen to buy into the myth that poor, third-world women of color just have too many dark-skinned babies,

      Where did you get the idea that I’ve bought into a myth that “poor, third-world women of color just have too many dark-skinned babies”? Did you skip over the part where I said that people who believe that are ignorant?

      I really hate knee-jerk reactions from people who think something else is being said than what really is. Stop misrepresenting what I said. While you offered valuable information in your follow-up blog post that I plan to read and follow up on to ensure I’m not inadvertently misrepresenting anything, you seem all too eager to jump up and down calling out Western white women for things they didn’t even say. Chill the hell out and read before you make BS comments like this.

    • Havlová says:

      Hi April, I respect that you are responding to my calling-out.

      I did read- your post, very carefully, as well as the writings of many, many others on this subject.

      Here is why my comment is not “BS”.

      I have been involved in these type of debates before. When it comes to brass tacks, this “over-population” argument is about women with “too high” fertility- this category is predominantly filled by poor, third world women of color. European-descended women and Western women already have low fertility rates, so a discussion of (potentially forced) fertility reduction isn’t about them. Also, whenever the debate is about reproduction, and limiting repro freedom, we are talking specifically about women. That is why I called you out for espousing ideas (that over-population exists, that fertility must be reduced, perhaps by force) that are harmful to women and especially WOC.

      Look at this comparison of fertility rates around the world and tell me we aren’t talking about poor, third world women of color when we talk about “high fertility”. You will have a hard time convincing me that you are discussing Europe or the US, what with our fertility rates already being below replacement level (2.1 children per woman).

    • April says:

      Thanks for the respectful response.

      I’m going to take a look at the links you’ve provided (thank you) and I’ll get back to you.

    • JutGory says:

      April: Well, we’re not necessarily talking about “legislating the number of children a woman can bear.” … I thought it’d be clear that forcing women to abort fetuses would not be part of a future plan along those lines. And obviously, since men are half of what causes new children, they would have to be held accountable as well. Like a vasectomy after fathering however many children.

      So, you want to legislate the number of children a man can have? Are you suggesting forced sterilization of men?
      -Jut

    • April says:

      So, you want to legislate the number of children a man can have? Are you suggesting forced sterilization of men?

      I’m not suggesting forced sterilization of anybody. I was countering the previous commenter’s implication that, if such a policy should be implemented, women would/should be the only people affected by such legislation.

    • April says:

      I’ve been reading the information in the links you provided. My opinion thus far is that there are many factors, many more than what are commonly noted or popularized, that go into population, fertility, and reasons for high fertility; additionally, all of the articles in question have one thing in common: they focus primarily on hunger as the basis for population concern. What other people are concerned with is the planet’s sustainability. More people = more resources, whether those resources be those for food or other sources of power. And one major factor is that the US, and other Western nations, are using far more than their “share” of resources.

      To use an example of a rural family, from one of the links you provided:

      The high fertility of the developing world can be partially explained by the large number of hands needed to perform low-technology agricultural tasks.

      In order to properly understand that piece of information and properly analyze what it means, we have to know what the quality of life is for the average family in the agricultural business in the developing world. Is is roughly equivalent to what you would reasonably argue is the minimum standard you would accept– with regard to any “first world” privilege you may have? If not, I think it veers dangerously close to trying something like trying to justify sweatshops and the like, which is just “capitalist-style commodity acquisition & consumption” ‘splaining at its finest. Saying that something oppressive is actually beneficial because it’s marginally better than the most readily available alternative is not a free choice that anybody should be advocating for, or defending.

      I think my blog post was overly simplistic, after having read those articles. I don’t, however, think it was misguided in the sense that I believe we should be discussing further the planet’s resources, the distribution of those resources, and every individual’s personal responsibility in not fucking that up for selfish reasons. I mean, really, just everyone making sure they’re doing “their part.” In whatever. In making babies, in using resources, in spending money, in treating people, in helping people, in forming relationships with people. Etc. and so forth, I guess…

      I hope to write a better follow-up post to this one, incorporating information from the links you’ve provided, broadening the subject.

      Idealistic, sure, but still a reasonable expectation, in my opinion.

  4. If you wanna know what is wrong w/the modern Left/Feminism, check out my old Octomom thread , where everyone was so shocked that I was shocked. She can do whatever she wants, and how dare we question it! (even if WE are paying for it)

    See, this is why we are currently under attack by the Right at the present time: because they can. The excesses have reached critical mass, and even us lefties are ashamed of all the Stalinism.

    (sigh)

    • April says:

      I’m not fond of the argument that often comes from the modern anti-oppression crowd that no individual’s decisions be critiqued. While all people’s definition of morality varies immensely, there is a point where it’s perfectly acceptable to deem a decision irresponsible or dangerous. Suleman’s very deliberate decision to have 14 children, 8 of them simultaneously, was irresponsible for many reasons, and I don’t believe that critiquing that decision and the impact that it will undoubtedly have on many people (the oft-cited taxpayers, Suleman’s mother, and– most importantly– her children) means that it will be rooted in racism or classism.

      It’s frankly unreasonable to choose to have that many children without a plan that doesn’t include “pimping them out,” as you said in your post, as she’s doing now by exploiting her children for profit.

      I agree with many of the commenters on your post who say that just because she’s poor doesn’t mean that her kids will grow up to be ill-adjusted or not properly cared for; on the other hand, intentionally (and no one can argue that Suleman’s decision wasn’t completely intentional) choosing to have 8 kids to add to already having 6 without fully considering the implications of that decision was not wise.

      Of course, that’s just my opinion…

  5. Pingback: BTW Over-Population Is a Myth « The Czech

  6. Lasciel says:

    My big issue with the over-population problem is that as Havlová said, there is no actual over-population problem. The earth is currently capable of feeding all it’s people.

    A lot of the hunger problem is due to infrastructure problems, foreign food aid and the aftereffects of colonization (such as the artificial country barriers that cut off grazing routes and the movement of people.)

    “Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty” is a great read, although it specifically focuses on Africa, I think.

  7. Jim says:

    “I have been involved in these type of debates before. When it comes to brass tacks, this “over-population” argument is about women with “too high” fertility- this category is predominantly filled by poor, third world women of color.”

    Except where it’s not. Back in the 60’s when the issue was Midwesterners flooding into California and gobbling up land, the people we were all talking about were blond and Germanic. The issue was land and quality of life. At least here on thwe West Coast, thie issue is still land and water use.

    Lasciel, the suffieciency of the planets resources is emphatically NOT the measure of our overpopulation. The world does NOT revolve around the needs of one weed species. With great power comes great responsibility.

    China’s one-child policy was not only a human rights abomination, it has also been realtively inefective at stemming population growth. It was never fully implemented din many rural areas, so now there are soemthing like 100 million displaced rural workers roaming the country looking for soemway to survive. The one thing it has done is raise the relative social value of the girls who did manage to get born during those years, at the cost of the lves of their less fortunate sisters. Of course their families are paying the price of having no sons and thus no future, but “tian bu ren” after all. The sexist effects of this policy noted above were firmly in place for centuries before. There is even a term specific to female infanticide in Chinese.

    We already know very well what effectually curbs population growth – affluence does, and if we really care about this issue, we should do whatever we can to end poverty everywhere.

    • Lasciel says:

      There’s only one problem with the “affluence stops overpopulation” hope.
      If you’re worried about overpopulation for the sake of the earth in general, that doesn’t help. Small, affluent populations use more resources and energy than huge, extremely poor ones. India, for all it’s people and unrestrained growth, still consumes less than the US.

    • Jim says:

      Yep, Lasciel, that sure is the catch.

      India consumes less, but may destroy more habitat. I don’t know how the numbers on that work out. It’s unlikely, but possible.

      This particular piece of this is as studded with ethical landmines as any other. How do you preserve wild habitat without being exculsionary? How do you balance people’s need for land for food with habitat preservation? Do you offshore all the food production, mining and other production to spare your own little piece of heaven? And even how do you even have an inclusive, democratic discussion of all thse questions, but then again, why should the even the most democratically decided wishes of a population of one species settle the issue?

    • Havlová says:

      You are correct if you interpret “affluence” as meaning capitalist-style commodity acquisition & consumption.

      It isn’t so much physical ownership of capital, or money, or commodities that lowers fertility. It is the satisfaction of all basic human needs, i.e. the satisfaction of human rights. Consumption doesn’t correlate with low fertility: Europe has both lower fertility and lower consumption than the US.

    • Havlová says:

      When I said “these type of debates” (yes grammatical error!) I meant this type of debate, i.e. linking women’s repro choices to over-population, TEH GREAT EVIL!

      I would respond differently if the topic was land use policy or intracountry migration.

  8. Jim says:

    Blaming women for over-population is as stupid as blaming men for war. All it really does is to show that the person saying it is not really interested in any kind of serious discussion.

    Here’s my personal take on reproductive choices. For ever people have had to deal with the fact that lots of babies die and so for that matter do kids, and because of the long lead time involved, you couldn’t just have a replacement baby when an seven or twelve year old kid died, so you just kept the pipeline full of new babies coming along. Also the main accomplishment people could hope to achieve in life was building up their family, increasing it’s numbers, improving its economic security, which also required lots of members. When those needs are met some other way, people back off on the dangerous proostion of bearing human young.

    It was never some woman deciding on her own to have another kid. If she hadn’t nborn a son, she would get all kinds of pressure to keep trying for the family’s sake, becausee daughters add nothing to the family’s strength. Conversely she could be pressured into an abortion for any number of reasons. It’s a huge and very recent social achievement that anyone is in any kind of position to make these decisions on an individual basis, and it is far from universal.

  9. Clarence says:

    Well, just to add to this debate-
    I’ve been reading debates and stats about overpopuation for about 25 years and here is what I’ve concluded:

    A. It is true that “overpopulation” is not likely to be a problem if present trends continue. The US, for instance only grows its population due to the high rates of fertility of illegal immigrant mothers. All UN documents I’ve ever seen assert that human population will peak around the mid 21st century in any case, and of course one can find all sorts of people on the web to argue the whole technological infrastructure is going to collapse due to peak this or that and billions will starve or die in some ugly /sad fashion.

    B. While there is a limit to the planets carrying capacity this limit is NOT known with any certainty. As an example, phosphorus is a necessary element for food production. Unless a substitute can be obtained, the world has a given quantity of this which is constantly being recycled. While a substitute may be found, this is alot less likely than some other breakthroughs in terms of constraints. For instance, despite concern about “peak oil” I have no doubt that energy is practically unlimited for humans and this will be done either via solar power or advanced fission or fusion reactors. In short, powering a large population cleanly is far less of a constraint potentially then feeding them. But there are limits: there is only so much deuterium in the oceans , only so much sunlight per square kilometre. And of course only so much of this and that can be extracted /diverted without hurting other species.
    C. Carrying capacity is in part dependent on technology. I feel it is foolish to think we are currently too over populated for our technological level to support. I could see a techno utopian future where people and manufacturing activities have migrated at least partly off- planet and a hundred billion people live much more lavishly on earth than we do now but advanced nanotechnologies of extraction/production enable them to do far less environmental damage. Of course this might not come to pass, we could just as easily collapse to 1 to 2 billion mostly living a “Mad Max” future, fighting over scraps in a largely arid and much deader *except for bacteria , plants and a few small animals* world. Humans are irresponsible, and it is true that much of the damage humans are currently doing to the ecosystem can be amoleriated or even reversed IF we had the political will to “clean up ” after ourselves. Right now our societies are extremely wasteful when they don’t have to be.

  10. imnotme says:

    If any other species were tromping the globe right now with the same disrespect for the ecological effects of their actions, we would probably intervene upon them with death. That it is “we the people” makes the travesty a record of human hypocrisy which has yet to be negated or undone (putting aside those who did live rightly but were demolished by other humans in the name of civilization). We have long forgotten the days when the top of the food chain was not our standing place.

    I agree that overpopulation is a scapegoat employed by those would seek to further marginalize the poor. The answer is simple cooperation. Most advanced ancient cultures had a very good handle on this and I see no reason not to incorporate their wisdom into the future of America and otherwise.

    The current standard of profit seeking will kill us over time. Profit is waste and waste is unhealthy.

    However, I can see how a social pressure of keeping births down for a time as ethical provided the social infrastructure allows for non-coercive means by which to effect its will. April and I knowing not to have children while we struggle to pay our bills is a choice, and as such is pleasant in nature. If it were not a choice we would feel “robbed” as it were.

    • Jim says:

      No ifs, ands or buts about it – we do try to exterminate invasive species, on various levels. People organize groups to grub out English ivy here in the Seattle area, they do it for tamarisk in Arizona, and don’t get me started on the fucking worthless vermin that go by the name of starling. And it’s not all about European species either; a friend of a friend has eaten so many (Esatern) gray squirrels on her property that the native Douglas squirrels are re-establishing themselves there.

      With respect, ancient cultures usually had no clue, and there are many examples of cultures that collapsed because they were so clueless – in fact there happens to be a popular sciency book devoted to some case studies of that. Examples I can name off the top of my head are ancient Mesoptamia, which over-irrigated to the point of salinating a lot of formerly fertile land; the Anasazi in our Southwest, although they got a push from a climate change; and then there is the siltation around the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Roman Empire that choked up so many harbors, resulting from out of control land clearing and deforestation.

      Poor people do get marginalized; that’s because it generally requires coercion to arrest the progress of this environmental degradation. In Germany the nobility liked to hunt – guess what, they still have something like a real forest cover because their peasants were not allowed to clear every last square inch. In Japan the Tokugawa government enacted draconian laws to stop the destruction of the environment. Compare the amount of forest cover there with northern China. It doesn’t have to marginalize poor people, especially if there’s a government in charge making rational decisions.

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